Dubai protests highlight slave-like status of expatriate workers in the Middle East

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Rabi' al-Thani 03, 1427 2006-05-01

Special Reports

by Nasr Salem (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1427)

The construction of the world’s tallest building was disrupted in March when Asian expatriate workers rioted in protest at their working conditions. It was the latest of a series of protests. NASR SALEM discusses the plight of most foreign workers in the region.

When Asian workers in Dubai rioted in March on the construction-site of what might eventually become the world's tallest skyscraper, they shed the light on the plight of millions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who toil, sometimes at temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or more, in slave-like conditions throughout the Gulf region. Exasperated by low salaries, delayed payments, mistreatment and abysmal working conditions, some 2,500 workers on the US$900-million Burj Dubai tower (which is intended to house a luxury hotel run by Giorgio Armani) and at nearby housing-construction sites attacked security officers, broke into offices, destroyed computers and files, and smashed cars and construction machinery. The resulting damage was estimated at US $1 million.

In a rare show of solidarity of labour in the country, workers at a neighbouring construction site, where a new terminal is being built for Dubai International Airport, also went on strike. The government responded by threatening to prosecute those who took part in the riots, and warned the workers that they would be deported if they did not resume work.

Although such labour violence is rare in the Gulf region, the strike staged by the workers of the Dubai-based firm al-Naboodah Laing O'Rourke, one of the largest construction conglomerates in the UAE, is only one recent expression of discontent in a series of episodes of unrest among Asian workers in the region. The construction of high-rise towers in Dubaiwas interrupted again on April 26 by a violent protest staged by about 2,000 workers of the al-Ahmadiyah Contracting Company. Like their colleagues at Naboodah, the rioting workers, who were protesting maltreatment, arbitrary salary deductions and non-payment of overtime, turned violent, damaging eight cars and two buses, smashing office property, and destroying documents. They also pelted the offices with stones and beat up a site engineer. Dubai riot police rushed to the scene and used batons to break up the protesters.

Last year there were more than two dozen strikes in the UAE over unpaid wages, most of them in Dubai. Unrest by low-paid foreign labourers has lately been reported in Qatar, Oman andKuwait as well. Last year crowds of Bangladeshis also stormed their country's embassy in Kuwait in protest against poor working conditions.

Since the oil-driven boom of the 1970s, millions of Asian workers have flooded Gulf countries, outnumbering in some cases – such as in Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar –the local population. In the UAE, where some estimates put the proportion of foreigners at 85 percent of a total population of 3.1 million people and more than 90 percent of the country's 1.8 million workforce,expatriates from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China and elsewhere have been the low-paid foundation of the dizzying construction boom. Dubai, one of the seven emirates comprising the UAE federation, has more than 300,000 South Asians in the construction sector alone. In Saudi Arabia, the largest Gulf country in terms of both area and population, foreign workers account for 21 percent of the population of more than 26 million.

The composition of the expatriate workforce in the UAE is revealing: Indians account for 54 percent, Pakistanis for 18 percent, other Asian nationalities for 15 percent, and Arabs for 11 percent. That leaves only 2 percent for western expatriates. Asian workers are preferred because they are cheaper and believed to be apolitical, docile and pliant. Workers from Arabic-speaking countries could blend in with the local population much more easily culturally, but they are more expensive and cause employers unease because they might hold strong political views on issues related to national and regional politics.

The growing number of foreign expatriates in Gulf countries has been causing concern among government officials, intellectuals and the public at large over the resulting demographic imbalance. Some local analysts and editorialists have written about the cultural impact of such a large foreign workforce and expressed concern about the potentially negative effects of the country's dependence on expatriates. Some of these writings have bordered on outright racism and xenophobia.

Currently there are approximately 10 million foreigners working in the six Gulf Arab states that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. A small fraction of those expatriate workers is comprised of skilled specialists, such as healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses and the like), scientists, businessmen and technicians in the oil and gas fields. But most of the foreign workers are unskilled workers in menial jobs in construction sites, factories and workshops, restaurants and hotels, and homes. They usually come with stars in their eyes, dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families back home. But they often end up with scars on their soul because of experiences under conditions that human-rights groups describe as being slave-like or analogous to indentured labour. Often they are in effect held hostage by exploitative employers who have confiscated their passports or denied them exit visas. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch said recently: "One of the world's largest construction booms is feeding off of workers in Dubai, but they are treated as less than human. It is not surprising that some workers have started rioting in protest."

The UAE is the third largest economy in the Arab world, ranking behind Saudi Arabia and Egypt. According to the UN, the UAE's per capita income exceeds US$ 20,000. The country's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to rise to US$ 139.4 billion within the next couple of years.

Many of the unskilled workers in the UAE are burdened by debt because of having been duped or forced by recruitment agents into paying exorbitant sums for their current jobs. Some might have paid as much as $3,000 to get their visas. This is an enormous amount for workers whose average monthly wages are between 500 and 600 dirhams (around US$ 135-165). Normally, a large part of these wages goes toward repaying loans. With whatever is left they struggle to survive on as little as possible in order to send as much as possible to their families at home. The financial plight of these workers is exacerbated by the fact that employers often deny workers their wages, or delay their payments. According to Human Rights Watch last year some 20,000 workers lodged complaints with the government about the non-payment of wages and grim labour-camp conditions.

With such low wages most Asian workers who come to the UAE, most of them men with little or no formal education and little hope of finding jobs in their home countries, are forced to live apart from their families. This is mainly because of immigration rules that establish a minimum income requirement for eligibility for family visas. A foreign male who has a work visa is entitled to sponsor his family for residence only if his monthly income is above the prescribed level, usually 4,000 dirhams (US$ 1,100). Moreover, foreign women working in the UAE find themselves forced to sacrifice family life because labour laws do not entitle foreign women to sponsor their families even if they earn more than the stipulated salary. The only exceptions to this gender discrimination are doctors, teachers and nurses, who earn a monthly salary of more than 6,000 dirhams, because of the shortage of these professionals among the local population.

Women, who work mostly as housemaids and hotel and restaurant workers, are at particular risk of violence, exploitation and sexual molestation, mainly by their employers. In 2005, UAE courts convicted three men of the Emirates of raping Filipino domestic maids. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as shown by the scores of Filipino domestic helpers who seek refuge at their country's diplomatic missions, where they live in makeshift shelters to avoid abuse and wait for their consulates to arrange their return home. In return for their pitiful wages, domestic helpers work shifts of 16 hours or more, remain locked in their employers' homes, and are fortunate to get one day of rest in a fortnight or month.

Few Asian workers can afford the air-fares to see their families; only the lucky ones manage to go home once every two years. Living separately from families contributes to high levels of depression and other psychological problems among foreign workers. The emotional pain, physical suffering and grim conditions all contribute to an increasing incidence of suicide among foreign workers in Dubai. A recent report by Human Rights Watch says that last year 80 Indian residents took their lives, up from 67 in 2004. In addition, Human Rights Watch also reported that up to 880 cases of death occurred at construction sites in 2004. Only 34 cases of death at construction sites appear in the UAE's own government statistics for 2004.

The living conditions of the vast majority of Asian workers are bleak. Labour camps consist of squalid cramped quarters where workers live six or more to a prefabricated room. Some workers have complained that the food they eat lacks taste and is unhygienic. They are forced to wash themselves, their clothes and their kitchen utensils with dirty brown water. Cooking in these camps is often done in filthy kitchen facilities, many of which are located next to overflowing, foul-smelling toilets. Foreign workers also enjoy virtually no medical benefits and when they fall ill are left to face staggering hospital bills.

For far too long foreign expatriates in the UAE, and in the Gulf in general, have had very little legal protection and have been expected to take the exploitative and abusive work conditions without complaint. For many years they have endured the emotional and physical pain without the right to form unions or voice their opinions. But now things seem to be changing. Asian workers have started to employ more militant and radical tactics in demanding rights and better conditions. Replacing them with workers from other countries is not an economically rational alternative: it involves an exorbitant increase in labour costs that will eventually affects the entire economy. That can realistically only mean that the recent stirrings of protest are the beginning of the end for the quasi-indentured labour-system that most foreigners currently work under.

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